Tuesday, June 23, 2015

I Own a Confederate Flag

Asalamu Alaykom,

After nine African-Americans in a Bible study group were killed in the sanctity of their church, it is once again time to examine what the hell kind of place America is and what does it want to be.

I visited America last year.  I no longer say, "went home to America," because it doesn't feel that way to me any more.  Senseless violence, like the killings in Charleston, reinforces that.  No place is free from hate and violence, but what we saw this week was amped up racial rage.

In my role as an eighth grade English teacher in Egypt, I teach a book about the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Infantry Reserve or the "Glory" regiment which was the subject of the Oscar-winning film of the same name.  For three years, I have tried my best to communicate that what we read on the page is still resonating decades later in current events taking place DAILY in America.

My first year teaching the book, there was a strange case of an elderly white man slapping a black toddler on an airplane while calling him the n-word.  

I thought that I was incredibly lucky to have such a human interest story take place at the same time I was racking my brain for a way to push the students' empathy buttons.  I told the story and then passed the little boy's picture around.

"He's not black."

"Yes, he is considered black."

"He's no darker than us."

The second year, I had the Donald Sterling case happen right before we started the book.  We talked over  the incendiary nature of the n-word and the zero tolerance for it coming out of the mouths of bigots.


This year, there were the many deaths of black men at the hands of police.  There were so many and there were more as the term went on.  Often, the students heard about the deaths before I brought them up.

Once we were a couple of weeks into the book, I brought a visual to share.  I brought the Confederate flag.  We had just read how Robert Smalls, a black slave and pilot of the steamship Planter, had hoodwinked Confederates by pretending to be the white captain so he could steer the ship to the Union blockade and to freedom.  As soon as he was in Union waters, he had the hated flag torn down from the mast.

The flag stood for slavery.  I spend a lot of time in my class helping the students understand what an evil slavery was.  Slavery is believing that human beings are animals who can be bought, sold, beaten, raped, and torn apart from their families.

Slavery is so hated in Islam that one of the best things you can do in this life is to free someone from bondage.  We are all equal.  In some ways, we are all slaves because we all serve the Almighty.

It is a huge sin in Islam to differentiate due to skin color.  There's a story from the Sahabi, the companions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), that Bilal, the first man in Islam to give the call to worship, was made fun of by another man.  Bilal was black and the man identified Bilal by his blackness, as if it made him less as a human being.  That man was strongly rebuked.

So, there I stood with a flag which represented all that I abhor.

I'm a Northerner.  I get scared in the South.  I got scared when I traveled south to visit my transplanted father.  I wasn't sure what I would find there or how the southerners would find me.  Honestly, I didn't have a problem---no rudeness to speak of (although I was accompanied by two elderly white people so it probably isn't a fair assessment).

I bought a Confederate flag during my visit, although I had originally thought to buy an American flag while I was in the U.S.  When I saw a stack of Stars and Stripes, I made my way to the shelf.  It was then I saw the Confederate flag, and my mind started conceptualizing of using that instead as a teaching tool.

It's all good and fine to talk about ideas but students need visuals and tangibles.  This flag would be  very real evidence that once the U.S. was split in half with two different governments---two different presidents!  I put down the $10 flag and walked around the tourist shop some more.  All the while, I kept wondering if I should buy it.  I went back to it twice before I picked it up with the intention to purchase something I hated.

This is when I morphed into my mother. My mother, God bless her, has this annoying habit of thinking that the cashier actually cares about what you're buying.  They don't.  They've seen it all.  They just want to ring you up and send you on your way.  For some reason, I couldn't keep my mouth shut.

"I don't like this flag but I'm going to buy it because I'm a teacher and I can show it to them when we study the Civil War."

He didn't speak English. It was bad enough I said it once, but now he got the manager over so he could understand me.  I had to say it all over again.  I might have even tried to say it in Spanish.

"No me gusta la bandera pero estoy una maderisa y mis estudiantes mumkin..."

Okay, "mumkin" is Arabic for possible.  I can't speak Spanish any more without throwing in a few Arabic words.

Oddly enough, the manager didn't care either why I was buying a Confederate flag.  I spent the equivalent of 70 Egyptian pounds on it and walked out the door.  It did make me wonder how much I really loved my students to spend that much in the U.S.,when I really needed to buy things I desperately wanted.  I had actually spent money on something I didn't ever want to own.

Later, as I packed to come back to Egypt, I rolled my eyes at my knee-jerk purchase.  Yes, I had been on vacation in the South and had bought a relic of slavery.  Would anyone see this during my bag check at the airport?  Would I be taken into a small room and questioned?

Nothing happened.  Nobody cared.

Back in Giza, the flag sat in my home for many months.  I hadn't taken it out of the package.  I really didn't want to unfurl it---ever.  I wasn't sure how I was going to present it at school.  Would I post it?  Let them hold it?  I mulled it over.

That day, when we had finished reading about Robert Smalls, I had to show them.  I decided to keep it in the package.  There is some additional kind of proof with that slick packaging; this is a modern flag which is mass produced.

"This is the Confederate flag which I bought last summer in the U.S.  I had to buy it in the South because you can't find it in the North.  In fact, I had never seen a Confederate flag for sale EVER until I was in that southern store.  I bought it to prove something to you.  What?"

One of the more astute students (when he isn't asleep) piped up, "The feelings against blacks is still going on."

"Slavery is gone," I remarked, "but is racism?"

The class chimed in, "Noooo."

"No, " I agreed, "it isn't and this flag, in 2015, is the proof."

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